Elephant Drinking, Amboseli 2007. Killed by Poachers, 2009.
THE EXPLOSION IN POACHING ACROSS AFRICA
Since 2008, there has been a massively increased demand for ivory from China and the Far East. Ivory prices have soared from $200 a pound in 2004 to in excess of $1500 a pound today. Some experts estimate that as many as 35,000 elephants a year are being slaughtered, 10% of Africa's elephant population each year alone.
And the killing isn't limited to just elephants. Powdered rhino horn is now more expensive than gold. There are now just an estimated 20,000 lions left in Africa - a staggering 75% drop in just the last 20 years - to the point that now no lions left outside protected areas, and even those are being poisoned when they roam outside those borders. This isn’t just due to population pressure - they are also being killed for body parts for China now there are so few tigers left.
The plains animals are getting slaughtered as well: Giraffes here in the region are being killed at a faster rate for bush meat. There are even contracts out on zebras, their skins the latest fad in Asia.
Elephant with Half Ear, Amboseli July 2010. Killed by Poachers, August 2010.
© Black & White Photos : Nick Brandt
POACHING IN AMBOSELI PRIOR TO BIG LIFE
The Amboseli ecosystem harbors one of the two greatest population of elephants left in East Africa (the other being the adjoining Tsavo ecosystem). Until Big Life came on the scene in late 2010, Amboseli was experiencing a dramatic surge in poaching.
Many of the ecosystem’s most stunning remaining big bulls were being slaughtered in steady succession. It was no longer if a big-tusked elephant would be killed, but when. But even elephants with tusks barely more than broken stumps were being killed. No elephant was safe any more.
For an ecosystem of such importance and uniqueness, Amboseli was strangely forgotten in terms of wildlife protection, suffering badly from insufficient funding from both government and (the very few) non-profit organizations in the region. New tarmac roads in the vicinity make for an ever easier escape for the poachers.
On the Kenyan side, Kenya Wildlife Service is underfunded and can only protect the 300,000 acre park, an area dwarfed by the overall two million acre ecosystem. Additionally, rangers employed by the few underfunded NGO’s to patrol the much larger Amboseli ecosystem have been few and far between.
On the Tanzanian side lies a huge area of unprotected hunting block and a critical wildlife corridor around Mount Kilimanjaro. This is traditionally where most of the poachers have come from, and if the animals ventured over the border into Tanzania, this is where they'd often been likely to get killed.
But there has been almost no-one to stop the poachers having free rein. When poachers have come over from Tanzania to kill elephants before escaping back over the border, they have simply gotten away.
Clearly what was needed were teams of rangers on both sides of the borders, working in close communication, so the rangers in Kenya could radio those on the Tanzanian side, to track and pick up any poachers crossing back over into Tanzania. No-one was doing this. A trans-border anti-poaching operation was desperately needed, one that would be the first of its kind in East Africa.
The few rangers that were there were on foot, with no vehicles to effectively patrol and give chase, and without the necessary basic equipment : cameras, GPS’es, often even without radios. They needed to be mobile, and they needed to be able to communicate.
With all this in mind, in order to attempt to stop the destruction of this extraordinary ecosystem and its animals, Big Life Foundation was established in October 2010.
The Amboseli ecosystem became Big Life’s pilot large-scale initiative project, with the highly regarded conservationist and Big Life co-founder Richard Bonham at the helm of operations.
Originally founder of the Maasailand Preservation Trust, Richard has lived in the Amboseli area for decades, knows all of the key players there, and has a better understanding than anyone of how to address the multiple problems.
Meanwhile, on the Tanzanian side, Damian Bell manages Big Life’s Operations in Tanzania. As founder of Honeyguide Foundation, he has an outstanding relationship with the local communities and wildlife departments, perhaps more so than anyone else in Northern Tanzania.
Operating on the ground, collaborating closely with local communities, partner NGO’s, national parks and government agencies, particularly the Kenya Wildlife Service,
Richard and Damian are able to see, direct and co-ordinate operations first-hand, to marshall resources, and to have an open door and open ear to the local community.
BIG LIFE ANTI-POACHING TEAMS’ SUCCESS
Multiple fully-equipped teams of rangers have been placed in newly-built outposts in the most critical, vulnerable areas throughout the region. So far, within just two years of inception, Big Life has:
- 315+ rangers across the two countries
- 31 ranger outposts (5 formerly from MPT, 4 with the support of AWF) (see LINK)
- 15 anti-poaching vehicles (Land Cruisers, Land Rovers)
- Aerial support and monitoring operating in both countries : sharing in the overheads for a Cessna 206 and Super Cub in Kenya, and purchasing a Microlight in Tanzania
- 4 tracker dogs, vital to operations,two for each country (the first ever used for wildlife conservation in Tanzania) (see LINK)
- latest technology night-vision equipment, GPS’es and other necessary equipment for the ranger teams.
- large network of informers.
Since inception in 2010, Big Life has made :
- 1,030 arrests,
- 3,012 weapons confiscated.
Big Life’s teams, operating on both sides of the Kenya/Tanzania border, now co-ordinate the pursuit and arrest of poachers as they attempt to escape across the border, something that prior to Big Life’s inception, they were able to do with impunity.
This new level of co-ordinated protection for the ecosystem has brought about a major, dramatic reduction in poaching of ALL animals in the region. Because this is not just about saving elephants. It is about protecting all the animals in the ecosystem. Before Big Life, on the Tanzanian side, dozens of zebras and wildebeest were being shot in bouts of sustained killing for the bush meat market. That does not happen any more. Now, lodges on that side are seeing the return of elephant herds and prides of lions for the first time in years.
Thanks to the additional critically important support of the local communities, Big Life’s teams are now apprehending poachers most times that they kill. The fact that every ranger comes from the local communities only strengthens that link between Big Life and the communities, with each helping the other in vital ways.
As a result of these successes, and with such a comprehensive bush network, Big Life has been able to quickly send out a strong message to poachers that killing wildlife now carries a far greater risk of being arrested. Amongst other achievements, a number of significant arrests of some of the worst, most prolific long-term poachers in the region have at long last been engineered by Big Life's teams.
Big Life Rangers, Kimana, 2011
INTO THE FUTURE, ELSEWHERE....
However, the poaching continues unabated, escalating and out of control, in the areas where Big Life still has no presence. Whilst substantial progress has been made, Big Life still needs to urgently double the number of rangers, camps and vehicles in the Amboseli ecosystem.
When the goal of stable and sustainable operations long term has been achieved in the region, the goal is to then start allocating funds to other areas in East Africa urgently in need of dealing with this growing poaching crisis. Because as the illegal demand for ivory, rhino horn and other wildlife parts continues to grow, there will be many who cannot resist the easy profits to be made out of killing these irreplaceable creatures.
Africa is Africa because of the animals there. But we can no longer take their presence for granted. At this rate, within the next twenty years, they will be gone. Imagine a world where very soon, these animals can only be seen in the sad, drab confines of a zoo.
Big Life acts now, effecting immediate protection, immediate results - a kind of short term triage - so that the animals will still be there in the wild as longer term solutions are implemented. It is working hard, and so far successfully, to urgently staunch the flow of blood, and preserve these extraordinary animals in the hopes of a better future for both them, and the planet.
Big Life Rangers, Kenya, with new Land Cruisers, 2011